Are Travel Writers the New Poets (Though Not in a Good, Lyrical Way)?

Travel Stories: Tom Swick on writers and readers in an increasingly fragmented world

10.24.11 | 2:43 PM ET


Last year I gave a reading in New York City and, talking to people afterwards, I was struck by how many were also travel writers, or at least survivors of a travel writing course. It was refreshing to be around literate travelers. At home in Florida I usually address seniors, who like to ask me about cruise lines.

But reflecting later, I thought it unfortunate that the audience had not included more people with no professional interest—a few accountants, for instance, out for a good time. I wondered if travel writers had become like poets, who have long been accused of writing for each other.

It’s odd, when you think about it, because both groups take on big, universal subjects: the world and life. Who isn’t interested in those two things? (Though, admittedly, many Americans exhibit astonishing apathy toward the first.)

The rap against poets is that they have forsaken their audience in an effort to dazzle their peers. Travel writers, for our part, can go overboard on small epiphanies and life-altering moments that may have little resonance for someone resigned to a two-week vacation. At the same time, what if Elizabeth Gilbert had focused more on India and less on herself? In a country where a mere quarter of the population possesses a passport, there is a thin, unnerving line between self-indulgence and bestsellerdom.

Both titles—poet and travel writer—suggest an element of luxury (time in the first case, mobility in the second) that tends to produce envy in people outside the club, and an unspoken challenge: This better be good (i.e., not a waste of my hard-earned leisure). While those of us in the business make no such demands; a colleague’s work is always of interest because it gives us something to measure ours against.

And the best travel writers, like the best poets, are generally unknown outside their small circle. Names like Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, even Pico Iyer, win you no points at the neighborhood cookout.

Poetry and travel writing also share an often irresistible appeal to wannabe writers. A poem is short (unlike a novel), and a travel story is simply (in the popular view) an account of one’s vacation. As a result, both genres are riddled with unreadable writing.

But travel writing is by far the broader designation, sheltering classics (“Out of Africa,” “In Patagonia”) as well as guidebooks under its roof. (No poems ever come with hotel recommendations.) And it is the consumer division of travel writing that enjoys the largest presence, as a stroll through almost any bookstore, a scan of any magazine stand, a glance at any newspaper travel section will indicate. This has had the paradoxical effect of bringing to travel writing a vast number of readers who are not really readers; they’re people looking to go somewhere. Tell most people you’re a travel writer and you’ll be greeted with exclamations of envy. Ask them to name a travel book they’ve recently read and, almost inevitably, you’ll be met with silence.

In the mausoleum of periodicals there is a small section for those in the travel game that catered to readers: Holiday (the great travel magazine of the mid-20th Century); Trips (published in 1988 by Banana Republic and then discontinued after the first issue); Grand Tour (the quarterly created by Jason Wilson, now editor of and series editor of “The Best American Travel Writing”); Wanderlust (from the early days of Salon). Granta is still with us, though it no longer publishes travel writers regularly, as it did in the 80s when travel writing was so hot even clothing companies promoted it (and Rolling Stone ran the essays of Jan Morris).

Much of the problem for travel publications (even online ones) resides in the internet. The diary-like nature of travel writing makes it ideally suited to blogs. You can almost picture Robert Byron posting installments of The Road to Oxiana on his website, while it’s much harder to imagine T.S. Eliot doing the same with “The Waste Land.”

In an age of mass tourism and instant communication it’s no surprise that everyone is writing about their trips. The irony, and the agony, for many travel writers is that, after a lifetime of being dismissed as amateurs (traveling far from home and writing what we don’t know), we are now being supplanted by the cult of amateurism.

So it’s no wonder that, like poets, we rally around each other. But we are not the only ones. In an increasingly fragmented world, ours is an increasingly common fate. At a book fair a few years ago, Richard Rodriguez complained of getting only Hispanics at his reading, while women waited outside - he could see them through the occasionally opened door - for the lesbian author who was to go on next. “Why couldn’t I have,” Rodriguez asked reasonably, “some of the lesbians?”

This is the cry of every writer today. Though it seems a little out of place in travel, which by nature is wide-ranging, all-embracing, anti-hermetic, conversant with multitudes.

If only we could get them as readers.

A version of this essay first appeared in The Weekly Standard.